Tuesday, March 11, 2014

2015 Contenders: Babe Conquers the World, by Rich Wallace and Sandra Neil Wallace

There's nothing sports fans like better than a good argument, so allow me to start one: who was the single best athlete in American history? Jim Thorpe? Jessie Owens? Jackie Robinson? Bo Jackson? Michael Phelps?

There's no definitive answer to the question, of course, but let's consider one other possibility: Babe Didrikson Zaharias. Over the course of her remarkable career, the Babe led her team to a national championship in basketball, won Olympic gold medals in the javelin and the 80m hurdles (as well as a silver in the high jump), won national titles in the javelin and the baseball throw, single-handedly won the national track and field championship (entering as a one-woman team, she scored more points than any other team), barnstormed as a baseball player, won a league championship as a bowler, co-founded the LPGA, and won multiple major golf championships -- including the 1954 US Women's Open, a title she captured after cancer surgery, while wearing a colostomy bag. She was a six-time winner of the Associated Press Woman Athlete of the Year, over a mind-breaking 22-year span (1932, 1945, 1946, 1947, 1950, 1954). Essentially, she was simultaneously LeBron James, Carl Lewis, Satchel Paige, and Tiger Woods.

Babe Conquers the World is an accessible yet detailed look at the life of this extraordinary athlete. It covers her many triumphs, as well as her challenges. Much like Amelia Lost from a few years ago, Babe Conquers the World doesn't shy away from its subject's faults -- Zaharias wasn't a particularly easy person to get along with, and the book notes this, while at the same time pointing out how difficult it was to be a female athlete in the first half of the twentieth century, and how hard Zaharias had to fight simply to have the opportunity to make a living.

The book is exhaustively documented and sourced; anyone who wants to follow the authors' research won't have any difficulty. It also includes a wealth of archival photographs, and though that's not of concern to the Newbery, it might be of interest to the Sibert committee.

I'm not sure it will be, as Babe Conquers the World isn't a "literary" work in the mold of something by Steve Sheinkin or Russell Freedman. Its odds of winning the Newbery, especially in what is shaping up to be a highly competitive year, are probably zero. But it's a great introduction to a fascinating figure, and I'd definitely purchase it and talk it up.

Publication in March by Calkins Creek Books

Thursday, March 6, 2014

2015 Contenders: Nightingale's Nest, by Nikki Loftin

“Little” John Fischer has a lot more on his plate than the average twelve-year-old. His family can barely make ends meet, and his sister died not too long ago, which he believes is his fault alone. When he hears the beautiful, healing song of a bird while out helping his father clear trees, he is surprised to find that the song is not from a bird, but a fragile little girl named Gayle. Little John discovers that Gayle is the newest foster child of mean Mrs. Cutlin, and after seeing the way the family treats her, he is determined to protect her. But when a rich man known as The Emperor (real name: Mr. King) offers to pay him in return for recording Gayle’s voice, our hero is left with a difficult decision: save his new friend, or save his family?

Those familiar with Hans Christian Andersen’s famously melancholy fairy tales will not be surprised to find that Nikki Loftin’s re-working of The Nightingale is a very sad read for the majority of its pages. Gayle’s voice has healing properties, but there is a lot of hurt here to be healed, none of which is smoothed over. Little John is largely friendless and possession-less, and his family is handling their grief in less-than-healthy ways. That’s just the tip of the iceberg, too. Readers who like their stories to be nothing but sunshine should avoid this book like the plague, to put it bluntly. Despite this, even when the book is at its saddest, all of the pain never feels anything less than real, each of its many tragedies completely plausible.

Perhaps this is because everyone, no matter how cruel they are, feels like a real human being. Little John and Gayle are credible kids in bad situations, and Mr. King is also depicted as less evil and more pitiable, a treat considering he seemed a little too evil at first. The true evil lies in Mrs. Cutlin, a character who is incredibly cruel with no redeeming characteristics. It’s shocking to see a character with the potential to make one’s blood boil in a children’s novel, and more shocking that she’s not remotely laughable due to how plausible she feels.

The characterization and plotting is a testament to Loftin’s skill as a writer, and the prose is just icing on the cake. Fairy tale adaptations, especially those of a magic realist sort, are so often a hit-or-miss sort of deal, largely hinging on whether or not the prose feels overblown. The first passage that impressed me was on page 3, and the gold in the writing never ceased. It even has funny moments. Little John might be in pain, but he can still crack a good one-liner as well as any kid in a “funny” book every now and then. The only flaw in the writing is that some of the bird references, such as Mr. King calling his recording room a “cage,” feel a bit contrived every now and then. This is, however, a small caveat in a book with so much else that works for it. After all, few books could pull off an ending like this one has and not make it seem even a little hokey.

Overall, though it’s early in the year, I would have to place Nightingale’s Nest at the top of my list of Newbery hopefuls. There may be a few on the committee that would find its highly unusual style a bit off-putting. They might not like the ending, which I will not spoil. But in the end, it’s a gorgeously-written, strange (in the best way) book with the power to move one to tears, even if they think they’ve seen it all before, and I think that what it has done is special enough to deserve consideration.

Published in February by Razorbill


Today's guest reviewer is Kim Broomall. She's awesome, and you should follow her on Goodreads.